As Tamaki was building up her roster of New York–based clients, Paul Buckley, vice-president, executive creative director for Penguin U.S., was searching for “someone insane enough to take on the amount of work” required to create the hand-stitched cover art he envisioned for his proposed Penguin Threads series of classic novels. He recalls browsing Tamaki’s website while considering her for a redesign of Jack Kerouac’s backlist (she didn’t get the gig), and stumbling upon photos of a “monster quilt” adorned with fantastical sea creatures. It was Tamaki’s first attempt at embroidery, a painstaking craft she taught herself because she thought her illustration style suited the format.
Buckley emailed Tamaki, offering her the chance to embroider cover art for one of three books: Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, or Jane Austen’s Emma. The next morning she responded, begging to do all three. Her covers (Black Beauty went on to win a gold award from the Society of Illustrators) nod to classic illustration styles, but are pure Tamaki: ornamental flourishes that aren’t overwrought, with colour palettes falling somewhere between a tropical aquarium and a candy store.
“Jillian is distinct in a subtle way,” says Buckley. “She’s not locked into a genre, time, or place – her work will look as good 100 years from now as it does today. She’s excellent at movement, and does not shy away from complex, busy drawings, both of which can be extremely hard to pull off.”
While the Instagram-friendly Penguin Threads gave Tamaki great exposure, it was the graphic novel Skim that ignited her cartooning career. The project started in 2005 as a 24-page comic for Toronto-based literary magazine Kiss Machine, which was featuring Canadian women artist-and-writer duos new to the format. Tamaki’s cousin, Toronto writer and performer Mariko Tamaki, suggested they team up. “We were both in the early stages where we could still experiment,” says Mariko. “It was a warm-up chance to work together.”
Mariko sent Tamaki a story about a 16-year-old wannabe Wiccan goth and her unsettling relationship with a female teacher, set in the aftermath of a classmate’s suicide. The cousins worked long-distance on the project, Tamaki capturing in her drawings the rawness of teenage social isolation and confusion over sexual identity. Former Kiss Machine publisher and author Emily Pohl-Weary says, “When I looked at the first pencils for Skim, I remember thinking, ‘My god, this woman can communicate an entire emotion with one line of her pen.’ Her artwork added so much life and depth to Mariko’s moving story.”
The comic found its way into the hands of Groundwood Books publisher Patsy Aldana, who acquired a full-length graphic novel version for the House of Anansi Press kids’ imprint. “When we were working on Skim, we never imagined it as a YA story,” Tamaki says, “but Patsy saw something in it.” Aldana’s instincts were bang-on: the book, published in 2008, became a bona fide success, with sales in eight foreign territories.
“Skim was really groundbreaking,” says Sheila Barry, Groundwood’s current publisher. “That book was risky and different and dark for young adults. It really brought attention to Groundwood’s publishing program overall, but also it brought a whole pile of new teen readers to graphic novels who were looking for something more literary, more complex, more ambiguous than what was out there in comics.”